Sunday, February 5, 2017

Gendered Public Spaces and the Question of Safety

Parveen Sultana

The Bangalore Incident that happened on 31st December, 2016, where women who came out to celebrate New Year were sexually harassed by a large crowd of men, reminds us that public spaces continue to be unsafe for women. While Delhi has become infamous as a haven of crime against women, other cities are also not doing very well on this front.  Women who grew up in Bangalore recall that even a few decades back women faced harassment on the streets of Bangalore. Over the years, the scenario has not changed much.

Public space continues to be the dominant arena of men. Due to a continued public/private divide, men feel entitled to public spaces. This has, over the period of time, created a gendered nature of public space. Women entering this space are seen as entering a forbidden zone. Their very presence in this space is seen as a deviation from the norm. Even after entering the public space women are guided by certain rules. A move away from these allows men to teach these ‘unruly’ women a lesson.

Sexual abuse and criminal assault of women is no more specific to any particular place. Such crimes have happened all over the country and it continues unabated. In Mangalore where women in pub are beaten up by self appointed moral police, in Guwahati where a young girl is harassed for wearing a skirt and visiting a pub at night, in Delhi where a woman’s body is violated in the most gruesome way, in Kolkata where a rape survivor was slut shamed, the picture is similar. Often westernization and modernization are held responsible for such incidents. However rural India is not at all insulated from such crimes. The picture of two young girls hanged from a tree in Badaun after being raped reminds us that sexual violence against Dalit women, tribal women, women from minorities is used periodically to further marginalize these groups which are already languishing in the periphery.

The Bangalore incident and the various responses that followed, have again raised certain issues. After the incident, some videos surfaced and one of them was showing two men grabbing a woman, assaulting her and when she resisted throwing her hard on the road. Such videos raised the question of safety or absence of it in the streets of Bangalore. Ministers were too quick to dismiss the gravity of the situation. For the Home Minister of Karnataka, such incidents of mass molestation happen once in a while. For him the problem is that celebration of ‘western’ festivals like New Year, Christmas leads to gathering of young people in large number and such incidents happen. It assumes that sexual assault and abuse does not happen at home or in more traditional settings. The large number of child sexual abuse proves it otherwise. Families and traditions re-entrench gender biases – something which we should overlook at our own peril.

The local residents conveniently blamed the presence of a large number of ‘outsiders’.  By outsiders they meant both foreign nationals and migrant workers. However, Shilpa Phadke of TISS who worked on gendered public spaces and made a case of inculcating the culture of ensuring the right to loiter for women, is of the view that the presence of lower class men and women in large number in public spaces in fact makes it safer. Studies also show the decrease in participation of women in labour force has also rendered public spaces unsafe.

While some were dismissive, others went on to victim blaming and accusing women that they were responsible for what happened. In a very expected way, blames were labeled on dresses worn by the women, the late party timing and the western festivals of New Year. The fact that the administration, despite knowing the possibility of an unruly mob, was not well prepared is overlooked. Police was largely outnumbered.

Social media responded to the incident in a mixed way. While the hashtag #Notallmen made a case that based on the activities of few men it should be generalized that all men are potential sexual abusers, the hashtag #Yesallwomen reasserted the fact that women across the board – from different class, caste and communal backgrounds run the risk of facing sexual abuse. It is this constant threat which binds them. Many men condemned the incident and rightly pointed out that while all men do not endorse or indulge in violence against women, it is the responsibility of one and all to acknowledge the unequal power equation between men and women. Some rightly pointed out that while media focused on the Bangalore incident, its concern for TRP made it bypass the rapes of tribal women in Bastar. Media choosing metro cities’ news over peripheral areas (both geographically and psychologically) is nothing new. However, being dismissive of molestation because it is not as grave as rape, is also problematic.

Every time such an incident happens, call for stricter laws and better implementation is echoed from every corner. Absence of strict laws, indifferent and insensitive police officials, the terribly low conviction rate continues to be obstacles on the road to a gender just society. Another big problem is lack of women friendly infrastructure. The dwindling of public transport and the mushrooming of private cab services have further limited women’s mobility. Our cities and towns are planned in such a way that it discourages the presence of women in public spaces after a particular time. Be it poorly lit roads, lack of security cameras and transport facilities, women’s access to public space and mobility is greatly curtailed.

However, we should not stop at the demand for stricter laws alone. Along with an institutional mechanism to stop sexual abuse and gender violence, there is a need to change the larger attitude. Perpetrators of gender violence must not feel that they can get away with it. Beliefs like “men will be men” put the onus to be safe, on women. Till the time such attitude persists, we will have to witness incidents like the Bangalore case.

Sexual abuse and rapes are rarely about sex and always about power. The culture of asserting one’s right by violating the privacy of another with a belief that one can get away with it, fuels such power play. The need of the hour is a change in our fundamental understanding of equality. Inculcating gender just values in children through academic institutions and other public institutions is a crucial step towards building an inclusive and safe society. There is no short and easy step to achieve gender justice overnight. The long road to gender equality has to be traversed. Safe public spaces must be recognized as women’s right and their freedom to move cannot be curtailed in the name of keeping them safe. A multi-pronged strategy with planning safer cities, improving public transport, sensitizing administration along with working on the overall patriarchal mindset should be put in place. Only then a gender just society and safer public spaces for all will become a reality.

The Author is Assistant Professor of Political Science at P.B College, Assam

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